A useful idiot

One of my favourite series of books as a child was the Arthur Ransome series Swallows and Amazons. My parents bought the twelve books for me progressively over several years as birthday, Christmas and special occasion treats (I remember getting one book on the occasion of my tonsillectomy), and I loved the world of John and Susan and Titty and Roger, the crew of the valiant sailboat Swallow, with their sometime allies and sometime foes Nancy and Peggy of the pirate ship Amazon. Children at play having innocent adventures in the lake district in the north of England – it was a wonderful and imaginative world.

When my own daughter lent me Roland Chambers’ biography of Arthur Ransome, The Last Englishman, I was very keen to read it. It is a fascinating tale, and not at all what I was expecting. Arthur Ransome was not a very nice man – and I am sure that both of his wives, his estranged daughter, most of his literary colleagues, and the children on whom he based the crew of the Swallow, none of whom liked the books and most of whom hated the man himself at the end of his life, would agree.

Ransome was the son of a University professor who died when he was an adolescent, and the only significant and lasting relationship of his life seems to have been with his mother. After a hasty romance and the birth of a daughter Ransome begged associates in the newspaper world for a commission to travel overseas, and spent the years before, during and after the First World War based in Moscow as a correspondent for the left-leaning Daily Mail. He was friendly with leading bolsheviks in the Soviet government which emerged after the Russian Revolution, and had an affair with Trotsky’s private secretary, whom he later married after smuggling her out of Russia and enduring an acrimonious and financially crippling divorce settlement with his first wife.

Ransome was investigated by the British security services for his involvement with the Soviet leadership, but there seems to be a great deal of doubt about the extent to which he aided and abetted the regime, as opposed to ingratiating himself with the Soviet leadership in order to get a good story. Chambers recounts several occasions when Ransome carried messages and essential papers on behalf of the Bristish government, but these are held in contrast with his admitted couriering of diamonds and cash to the communist parties of England and other western nations in order to finance their aim of fomenting their own revolutions. Stalin is reputed to have described Ransome as a “useful idiot”, and once gets the impression that Chambers in this book promotes that view.

After the war Ransome attempted to retire into relative obscurity, but continued to work as a journalist, and after an (initially unwelcome) meeting with the children of some old friends he sat down to write the Swallows and Amazons series based on their adventures. The books gained him wealth and a level of public admiration such that he was awarded a CBE in 1953 and an honorary doctorate from Durham University. Unfortunately, as Chambers tells the tale, he seems to have alienated almost all of his friends and associates in his later life. He was never reconciled with his daugher Tabitha, and the young people with whom he had shared several summers of exploration on the lakes in the inter-war period, on whom the characters of his books were based, came to resent the notoriety, so much so that not long before his death Ransome attempted to expunge the original dedication of the first book “To the six for whom it was written in exchange for a pair of slippers” from subsequent editions.

Chambers’ book is well written, and it is fasinating both for the story it tells and for the insights it gives into the events of the Russian revolution and literary society in pre- and post- war Britain. I enjoyed reading the book, but I will never quite think of the Swallows and Amazons or their author in the same way again. For me their innocence has been shattered, as I suppose it should be. The free and care-less world of the lake district is a fantasy. It does not exist, and never did. But perhaps there is something to be said for a man who could witness at first hand the terrors of war, coup, purge and pogrom, and then return home to create a world for children in which such stark realities can be postponed, in which children can be children, home is a safe and secure place, and adventures always turn out alright in the end.

According to Chambers the character of Uncle Jim/Captain Flint in the series is based on Ransome himself, so perhaps he should have the last word.

That’s all right” said Captain Flint, fingering the bundle as if he loved it.
“It’s very dull,” said Roger, “Titty said it was treasure”
“There’s treasure and there’s treasure” said Captain Flint. “It takes all sorts to make a world”.

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